I’ve been thinking about broccoli a lot this season. Our girls love it so I’d love to be able to grow quite a bit of it. The problem lies in the size of the plant versus the size of the harvest. Each plant grows a head of broccoli and that’s pretty much it. It’s not like many other plants that will keep producing all season long. Some varieties will grow decent side shoots once the head is harvested but what exactly is a “decent” amount of side shoots? Each side shoot is like an individual broccoli floret so you have to harvest many to get enough for even one side dish. How many side shoots would be needed for our family for one dinner? How many plants will that take? How much space do they take in the garden? Is it worth keeping the broccoli plants in the ground once the head is harvested? These are just some of the questions I’ve been asking myself this season with regards to broccoli.
In the spring of 2014, I grew broccoli in several large pots ranging in diameter from 12”-17”. They did well and we let the few side shoots that grew go to flower which the girls absolutely loved. If you haven’t let broccoli flower give it a try. It’s beautiful and it will be covered in bees. The flowers are edible and can be sprinkled on salads or just snacked on when you’re out in the garden. Anyway, I noticed very early on that the root system of these plants is huge! The roots quickly filled the pot so I couldn’t really even scratch in some fertilizer or compost. So once it was time to discard the plants and replant the pot there was no soil that could be salvaged from the pot for the next plant.
Fast forward to the fall of 2014, I have an Earthbox with six broccoli plants. Yep, I fit six of them into a container that is just under 2 ½ square feet. They did well and but they didn’t produce many side shoots. These were orphans given to me and I don’t know the variety so this one may not be a great producer of side shoots. Out of six plants we harvested enough for a side dish for three meals for our family of four. Now, we LOVE broccoli so that might have been enough for 4 side dishes for some families. We could’ve actually done with just two side dishes. So, each family is going to be quite different.
Assuming this was an empty Earthbox, it needs to be filled with two cubic feet of potting mix. According to the Earthbox directions, three cups of organic fertilizer is used. Some people just use these boxes as regular containers and use their own fertilizer routine and some follow Earthbox’s system. I used three cups at planting and soon before the heads started to form I noticed that the fertilizer strip was gone so I replenished with 3 more cups. So, that’s 2 cubic feet of potting mix, six cups of organic fertilizer and six transplants (which were free)…all to get 2-3 side dishes for my family. Do you see where I’m heading with this? And because of the massive roots in the box I won’t be able to use any of the soil for the next planting. Sure, the used soil and roots can be composted but it’s not an immediate use for me. I guess to be truly accurate I should account for water usage but that’s taking it to a level that I don’t want to explore. I don’t have to plug in the exact numbers for what I paid to start wondering if broccoli is a crop worth growing for the output.
The numbers start to get worse once we take the Earthbox out of the equation. In a Square Foot Garden, broccoli is planted at one plant per square foot. It would take six square feet to grow the same six plants I did in 2 ½ square feet of my Earthbox. SFG is a system that uses close spacing. Other common spacing recommendations for broccoli range between 12”-18” apart.
I could go into further details and try to figure out the fertilizer requirements for those six plants if using the SFG or other “methods” but I’m not going to go there at this point…maybe if I feel like crunching numbers later. SFG uses compost as the only fertilizer although I’ve read about mixed results. It seems like fertilizer is a common deviation from the official SFG method.
This is all very depressing. It makes me really appreciate plants that continue to produce throughout the season. They seem to do a better job earning their keep. Now, to be fair I should mention that broccoli leaves are edible but we haven’t used them yet. We don’t like cooked greens so I’ll have to look into ways to use them in smoothies, salads or maybe hide them in cooked dishes.
I haven’t even touched on taste and that’s where the problem lies. There is nothing you can buy at the store that beats the taste of home grown produce…at least not usually. Store bought produce is such a disappointment when you start growing your own. This broccoli had a fantastic taste that had many subtleties especially compared to what we’ve bought in the store. The color was a green that ran throughout the entire head. Have you ever picked up broccoli at the store and turned it over to find that the underside was white? That is definitely annoying.
It’s pretty easy to figure out the cost of growing our food although it’s probably not a smart thing to do if you enjoy gardening. But I am curious especially since we don’t have the space for a huge garden. How do we best make use of the space? What are the most cost effective crops to grow in a small garden? The math is easy but how can you quantify flavor to accurately judge if the output of a crop is worth the space and input it takes to grow it? I don’t have any answers but I’m pretty sure I’m not the first to ponder the question.
This current cool season (spring 2015), I have a six more broccoli plants almost ready to harvest. Three are in an Earthbox along with some spinach. Three are in large pots. These are Calabrese that I started from seed. This is a variety often highly regarded in terms of producing bountiful side shoots. This is my first time growing it so it may be a little early to tell but the side shoots started growing soon after the heads first appeared and there are quite a few. I can see them being ready to harvest very soon after the head. On my original six broccoli plants (variety unknown), the side shoots didn’t even start to appear until a few weeks after the heads were harvested. So, you can understand how I was getting a little impatient.
Is broccoli a keeper for us? I’ll definitely plant it each season but it probably won’t be a large crop anytime soon. It’s a kid pleaser in our family and that is part of the fun of gardening. If I opt for more plants in a small space by using the Earthbox then I lose a lot of soil and fertilizer. If I lessen the soil and fertilizer requirements by using the raised beds then I lose quite a bit of space even when using a close spacing method of planting. Whatever I decide, I will definitely choose varieties known for side shoot production such as Calabrese.